Divergence from the Romantics

By January 23, 2008

In his 1993 Tanner Lecture delivered to the Mormon History Association, historian Richard Hughes suggested that “romanticism quickly emerged as the defining intellectual influence [of the Mormon Church] … and this was the difference that made all the difference.”[1] In a similar vein, Jacksonian scholar and Joseph Smith biographer Robert Remini concluded that “Joseph was a romantic to his innermost fiber.”[2] The connection between romanticism and early Mormonism is a fascinating one that deserves further attention.

However, scholars should take caution in approaching the subject and keep in mind a few important differences between romantic thought and Joseph Smith’s theology and worldview. The definition and description of Deity is one of the more significant differences. The English romanticist William Blake, for example, spoke of the Divine by merely referring to human characteristics:

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,

Is God our Father dear;

And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,

Is man, His child and care…

Then every man, of every clime,

That prays in his distress,

Prays to the human form divine:

Love Mercy, Pity, Peace. (Blake, “The Divine Image,” Songs of Innocence.)[3]

The influential Percy Shelley, on the other hand, spoke of a divine power in platonic terms, meaning he asserts ideal forms as an absolute and eternal reality of which the phenomena of the world are an imperfect and transitory reflection. These ideal forms, which can be termed as “universals,” do not exist in the way that ordinary physical objects exist, but have a sort of ghostly or heavenly mode of existence. This is most commonly seen in his poem “Mont Blanc”:

The everlasting unversie of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –

Now lending splendor, where from secret springs

The source of human thought its tribute brings

Of waters, – with a sound but half its own,

Such as a feeble brook will oft assume

In the wild woods, amon the mountains lone,

Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,

Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river

Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves. (lines 1-11)

William Mulder (mistakenly, in my opinion) groups Joseph with these other romantic writers by claiming that “his was the perennial despair of visionaries striving how to say the unsayable….[he was] nearly blinded by God’s waylaying light, [turning] to analogy and metaphor, finding in nature ‘images and shadows of divine things.'”[4]

However, I see Joseph breaking away from this tradition. Joseph’s deity had “a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22), and when he unveiled the “great secret” of God, it was that He is “like a man in form–like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man.”[5] To Joseph, there was no such thing as “immaterial matter”, because even “all spirit is matter” (D&C 131:7). Therefore, all things, whether heavenly or not, can be described with terms we are used to, because there is no vast difference between them. Because of this “collapse of the sacred,” as Givens puts it,  profound things can be spoken of in simple ways.


[1] Richard Hughes, “Two Restoration Traditions: Mormons and Churches of Christ in the 19th Century,” Journal of Mormon History 19.1 (Spring 1993): 45.

[2] Robert V. Remini, “Biographical Reflections on the American Joseph Smith,” in The Worlds of Josph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, edited by John W. Welch, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2006, 24.

[3] I confess that this is a drastically simplistic reading of Blake by not going into how these lines are to be viewed within their larger framework of “innocence” and “experience.” A further discussion of these points is tangential to this post, and was consequently ommitted.

[4] William Mulder, “‘Essential Gestures’: Craft and Calling in Contemporary Mormon Letters,” Weber Studies 10.3 (fall 1993): 7, in Terryl Givens, Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, New York: Oxford Press, 1997, 89.

[5] History of the Church 6:305

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History


  1. I think you are on to something here. The Romantics and Joseph Smith shared the seeker impulse. The problem lies in the fact that Joseph Smith eventually found something that he understood as “T”ruth and which was not ultimately ineffable. My sense is that Remini and others use the term “romantic” in a less technical and more impressionistic way to mean basically “not legalistic.” More clear-eyed analysis such as you offer here would help the situation out a great deal.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 23, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  2. I think this right. The basic materialist and pragmatic streak of the Mormons was opposed to the very otherworldly streak of the romantics (and also the hermeticists). There are similarities and Joseph was definitely a member of the Emerson generation. But the differences are amazingly profound.

    Comment by Clark — January 23, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

  3. Joseph may have diverged from the Romantics, but I wonder how much Mormon cultural expression (esp. poetry and fiction) did. It seems to me that the aesthetic of much Mormon literature is straight up post-Romanticism.

    Or to frame it in the way that you do, in what ways does Mormon literature “collapse the sacred”?

    Comment by William Morris — January 23, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  4. In some ways William, that’s right. In other ways though I wonder what literature Mormons most craved? I suspect it was much more a realistic endeavor. (Although Romanticism wasn’t as opposed to what we’d call realism as some think)

    The better way to think about Mormon art and thinking is the idea of the enchanted world that Damon Linker blogged about last year at T&S. Thus one can see that in a lot of Mormon literature. It characterizes a lot of Mormon thought but ends up, I think, being opposed to the more ‘otherworldly’ kind of Romanticism we normally think of even if it shares some characteristics.

    Comment by Clark — January 23, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  5. Interesting post, Ben. I’m not very knowledgeable in regards to Romantics, but the research is intriguing. Is this part of the research you’ll be presenting at MHA this year?

    Comment by Christopher — January 24, 2008 @ 12:19 am

  6. However, I see Joseph breaking away from this tradition. Joseph?s deity had ?a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man?s? (D&C 130:22), and when he unveiled the ?great secret? of God, it was that He is ?like a man in form?like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man.?[5] To Joseph, there was no such thing as ?immaterial matter?, because even ?all spirit is matter? (D&C 131:7). Therefore, all things, whether heavenly or not, can be described with terms we are used to, because there is no vast difference between them. Because of this ?collapse of the sacred,? as Givens puts it, profound things can be spoken of in simple ways.

    I think you have correctly identified a key divergence between Joseph Smith and the Romantics on this point about matter vs. ideal forms.

    But in other aspects Joseph Smith remains close to the Romantics, in some important ways, for example in an emphasis on transcendant experience and the primacy of revelations from a transcendant sphere. From a believing perspective, this can be understood as principles of truth surfacing in the movement of Romanticism because of such parallels rather than as Joseph Smith consciously channeling elements of contemporary Romanticism in his work.

    I have also explored the issue a little from the perspective of the Book of Mormon over at ABEV a few years ago in a post also informed by Mulder.

    Comment by john f. — January 24, 2008 @ 9:20 am

  7. Thanks to everyone for your comments. I am sill working these ideas out in my mind, so I truly appreciate all the feedback.

    Chris, this is a small part of what I am presenting at MHA. I went into the research thinking that I was going to focus on key convergences, but the more I read the more I realize that many of the key similarities have been skillfully discussed by others already. I have found a few more ideas that others havent touched on, but the most interesting part is finding many key divergences that no one has considered (at least to my limited knowledge). It seems Joseph’s thought started out very Romantic, but as he matured he broke away from that thought in drastic ways.

    Comment by Ben — January 24, 2008 @ 11:17 am


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